Konventa sēta – Convent Court – is located in Vecrīga, between Jāņa sēta, Kaļķu iela, Skārņu iela and Kalēju iela. On its SW side, along Skārņu iela, on eight-hundred-year-old foundations stands the building of the former St. George's Church, which is the home of the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. It is the oldest surviving stone building in Riga.
Built as a chapel for the castle of the Order of the Brothers of the Sword, it was constructed from Daugava dolomite, whose light colour led to it sometimes being referred to as the 'White Stone Castle' (from German Wittenstein – the white castle). The first mention of the Order's castle chapel in written records occurs in the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia in 1209.
The architecture of the church is characterised by laconic Romanesque style – thick walls, high, narrow, arched window openings, clear forms. There is little information about the overall layout of the castle. Over the centuries, the castle walls were demolished, therefore the existing information comes from small trial excavations. Only separate fragments of the foundations of the 13th century construction have been uncovered, not representing a unified structure. Already in the 13th century the chapel of the Order's castle was named after the patron of knights, Saint George.
In the Middle Ages, the relationship among the Order, the Archbishop of Riga and the citizens was dominated by tension which often erupted into armed conflict. One of the darkest years in the history of the building was 1297, when the conflict of the citizens of Riga with the Order developed into an open battle and the Order's castle was sacked. Only St George's Chapel remained unscathed. Space for the construction of a new castle was allocated on the bank of the Daugava on the site that in the 13th century was occupied by the Hospital of the Holy Spirit, or convent, founded by Bishop Albert, which in turn was relocated to the site of the old Order's castle. Thus, the original Order's castle on the bank of the River Riga came to be known as the Convent of the Holy Spirit. In 1488, it was taken over by a Tertiary Order, while the Church of St George was renamed Church of the Holy Spirit. In the 16th century an almshouse was set up in one of the buildings in Konventa sēta.
The Early Modern Period and Mast Pines
The movement of Reformation, which marked a new era in Europe, began in Riga in the 1520s, also altering the story of the building. The citizens attempted to rid themselves of the rule of the archbishop, and many churches in Riga were ransacked by mobs. In 1554, the bell of the St. George's Church was removed and the city council rented the former prayer hall out for warehouses. The congregation room was transformed by dividing it into several parts with walls and installing intermediate floors. It was the beginning of a new stage in the building's history.
Now there was the smell of wood, while ritual chants and the sounds of the bells were replaced by the calls of the workers. Hemp, flax, mast pines – those were the goods that filled the premises of the former house of God in the middle of the 17th century. Since the building was originally constructed for the needs of the Order, it was located in a strategically favourable place for trade– next to the harbour on the River Riga and near the market square. After reconstruction it was adapted to its new function of storing goods and earned the name “the dove warehouses”, because the facade of each warehouse had a wreath carved in stone, with a dove – the symbol of the Holy Spirit – painted on a copper plate in the middle. The Blue, the White and the Brown Dove – the warehouses that divided the premises of the former church came to be named after the colour of the bird. These designations survived up until the late 20th century, when the Mikhail Chekhov Riga Russian Drama Theatre was storing stage props here.
Witnesses of Design History
In the late 1980s, the era of the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design began in the almost-eight-centuries-old building. From 1986 to 1989, Poland's company for the restoration of monuments of antiquity conducted the renovation of the building, adapting it to the needs of the future museum. The Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts was established in 1989. In 2005, it was renamed Museum of Decorative Arts and Design.
Today the building is an architectural monument of national importance and its thick stone walls preserve the city's more than 800-year-long history, which presents itself to the museum's visitors.
The great exhibition hall, which is situated in the prayer hall of the former church, and both exhibition halls on the upper floors preserve the massive 17th century wooden posts and intermediate floors. The renovated triumphal curve reveals the volume of the apse of the former altar room, while patches of removed plaster partly uncover the Romanesque wall and its recesses as well as the high window openings. Today Romanesque architecture strikes with its clarity of form and simplicity, which, together with the heavy wooden beams and the brightest examples of Latvian design, creates a very special atmosphere.